In the days since the successful conclusion of the negotiations between the P-5+1 and Iran on the Iranian nuclear issue much of the commentary on (and criticism of) the deal has focused on Iran and the nature of the Iranian regime – its behavior, its intentions, its trustworthiness (or lack thereof), etc. President Obama, Secretary Kerry and other officials have spent much time and effort laying out what the deal is – and what it is not – and trying to focus the discussion on what the agreement achieves and what the alternatives would be. But the nature of the Iranian regime continues to serve as a lightning rod.
At the time the first discussions between U.S. and Iranian diplomats took place in the Sultanate of Oman in the summer of 2012, as the U.S. Ambassador there I had already been involved in more than two years of “negotiating” through Omani interlocutors with Iran. The matter at hand was the imprisonment of three young Americans who were detained by Iranian border guards in July 2009 while hiking in northern Iraq and, according to the Iranians, straying several hundred feet into Iranian territory. When the U.S. government sought help from friends in the region to try to get these innocent Americans freed, the Omani government offered to assist. What followed was a long and at times frustrating effort, but ultimately one that was successful in gaining the release of the detainees.
The process as it unfolded was also quite instructive concerning Iran. In discussions with Iranian officials the Omanis found the Iranians deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions. In the early months of the Omani effort it became clear that the continued holding of these innocent Americans was a black mark on Iran in the eyes of world opinion. Thus, some in Iran recognized that releasing the detained Americans was in Iran’s interest. They were also sensitive, however, to taking any action which might be seen as validating claims that the Iranian accusations against the Americans were false.
To build trust we undertook small but symbolic steps to demonstrate goodwill and to convince the Iranians that we were approaching the matter of the detained Americans solely as a humanitarian issue, not as an issue with which to posture against Iran. One confidence-building measure the USG took in support of this message was to look for ways to streamline visa regulations for the thousands of Iranian students at U.S. colleges and universities. Another was to facilitate access to Iranian citizens incarcerated in the U.S.; I met with the elderly mother of one such Iranian prisoner to assure her that she need not fear traveling to the U.S. These gestures were appreciated by the Iranians.
We also had to address the perception by some on the Iranian side that they could link the case of the American detainees to those of Iranians incarcerated in the U.S. When the Iranians were pressing the Omanis on one particular case, I provided the Omani interlocutor with the publicly-available records on the case involved. He shared those records with Iranian officials, records which documented that the Iranian defendant’s trial had been fair, the evidence convincing, and the sentencing appropriate.
The point in recounting this history is to underscore that, while there is long-standing mistrust between the U.S. and Iran, if Iran is approached in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and Iranian interlocutors are given evidence and information which help dispel mistaken fears and establish trust, Iran will act pragmatically and on the basis of enlightened self-interest. The Iran nuclear deal is a case in point. The deal will not change the nature of the Iranian regime, and it will not change Iranian interests. But it does address the Iran nuclear issue, and this successful and mutually beneficial outcome could help convince the Iranian leadership that currently intractable problems in the region in which the West and the Sunni Arab states are on one side, and Iran is on the other, might be amenable to negotiated resolution.